Out of all the musicals I’ve listened to, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: The Musical, nails the requirements for story structure in dramatic fashion. Miranda stated in his book that one of the challenges in creation, was altering the rhythm and tone of each song to create variety. Throwing in all the other story elements: character development, coherency, matching musical style to character personality … the task of writing a musical is just as complicated, if not more so, than writing a novel. My favorite example of story structure in Hamilton is within five songs on the cast album: “Ten Duel Commandments” through “History Has Its Eyes on You”.
Variation is your friend.
Even the most dramatic shoot-’em-up action sequences need to mellow out enough to give the characters time to breathe. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t go straight from the tense throbbing of “Ten Duel Commandments” to the fastest rap on Broadway, “Guns and Ships.” He provided an wistful interlude that built the relationship of Eliza Schuyler-Hamilton and Alexander. In the same way, novel scenes need to be varied between disaster and dilemma to give your characters some breathing room and time to develop their personalities in front of the readers’ eyes. Putting world-ending disasters on every page and never giving your characters time to deal with it emotionally is just as bad as leaving conflict out of your story.
Listen to your story.
Sometimes, rules are made to be broken. Sometimes your characters don’t need time to mentally absorb, they need to make a choice now and live with the consequences of that choice. Isn’t that how real life works sometimes? In the same way, Miranda built up tension by explaining the ritual of dueling in the vein of a dilemma. Hamilton, Laurens, Burr, and Lee all had a chance to walk away from this first duel. They had to choose: their perception of honor, or walking away from the fight.
Lee: “Have your seconds meet face to face.”
Burr: “Negotiate a peace…”
Hamilton: “Or negotiate a time and place.”
The dilemma/disaster (of Hamilton choosing to have Laurens fight in his place, then getting in trouble with his commander) is still preserved, but there is no time to breathe until Eliza tells Hamilton that she is pregnant.
Use “breaks” for foreshadowing/subplots.
Of course, your characters should always be facing some sort of conflict, whether they’re trying to decide between the worst of two evils or outrunning the villain’s henchmen. But dilemma scenes can be used to bring in subplots. The main thrust of Hamilton is centered around his ambition: to win the Revolutionary War, to rise above his social status, and achieve his political goals. However, the character of Alexander Hamilton isn’t complete without showing his devotion and relationships to his family. When Eliza tells him that she is pregnant, Hamilton is able to slow down and focus on his family for once. It foreshadows the heartbreak of “The Reynolds Pamphlet” and “It’s Quiet Uptown.”
Even though musicals have far different requirements than novels, they are useful teachers. The visual form of storytelling and condensed story (having to tell a full narrative in approximately two hours), require that no bit of foreshadowing or time be wasted. Alternating your scenes will help achieve a story that stays on point, instead of meandering down random alleyways.
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